There is one thing that Ukrainians, ordinary Russians, Vladimir Putin and Westerners all have in mind during this conflict: World War II. An old-fashioned ground invasion terrorizes the same cities as the German invasion of 1941, the largest military operation in history.
The scenes of families sheltering from bombs in subway stations, or trying to sneak onto terrifying trains, are instantly familiar. Even the confused and underpowered Russian tanks and conscripts haven’t changed much. History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as tragedy.
While some Western societies remain obsessed with the Second World War, the effect is much greater in the former USSR: around 24 million Soviet citizens were killed, compared to less than a million (still an unimaginable carnage) for the United States and United Kingdom together. So how do our collective memories of that war shape our understanding of it – and perhaps even shape the current war itself?
Putin, born in 1952, is one of the last politicians whose worldview emerged from World War II. He told different versions of a story about how his father found his mother barely alive on a pile of corpses during the siege of Leningrad. Their eldest son, Viktor, died during the siege.
As Putin became increasingly obsessed with history, he intensified the jingoism of Russia’s official war history. In his story, which is dangerous to question, the USSR did not really collaborate with Germany from 1939 to 1941, but defeated Hitler alone and was never thanked by the West.
This is a rise of the de facto Kremlin ideology of the last decades: the twoism of world war. Chauvinist myths about the Great Patriotic War have been propagated by Putin’s adviser Vladimir Medinsky, who is now Russia’s chief negotiator in the “peace talks” with Ukraine. No wonder Putin’s justification for this war is “denazification”. The implication: it’s a fight to the death.
There is some truth in his accusations of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis. Stalin’s pre-war brutality killed millions of Ukrainians, so when the Germans arrived some people welcomed them as liberators. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists sometimes fought on the Nazi side and massacred Poles and Jews. The Red Army in Ukraine was considered both “our” army and “their” army, Russian liberator and occupier.
There is a contemporary version of Ukrainian ethnonationalism that is anti-Russian, anti-Semitic, anti-Polish, and soft on Nazism. Some politicians, including former President Petro Poroshenko, have whitewashed UPA fighters as nationalist heroes. Neo-Nazis joined the Ukrainian Euromaidan protest movement of 2014, and the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion fought against Russia from Donbass. But the Ukrainian far right is marginal, obtaining 2% of the vote in 2019.
Putin was never very interested in his denazification narrative, and may not even believe it himself, argues Oxford political scientist Dimitar Bechev. The Russian president had hoped for a quick war that would hardly require stories. However, his story of “denazification” clashed with Ukrainian Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose three great-uncles were executed by the German occupiers.
“How can I be a Nazi?” Zelensky asked the Russians in a video recorded in his native Russian, not mentioning his Jewishness but referring to his grandfather, who fought in the Red Army. A Jewish comedian has become “the hero of Ukrainian history,” says anthropologist Marina Sapritsky-Nahum.
Zelensky is also changing what it means to be “Ukrainian”. In what may be his last days of life, he is creating an inclusive Ukrainian nationalism, which groups Ukrainians and Russians, Jews, Muslims and everyone else as Ukrainians. Ukrainian writer Vladislav Davidzon calls it “the polyglot nationality of a completely traumatized nation that just wants to exist”. It is also a new model of nationalism from which the countries of Western Europe could draw inspiration.
Putin’s story of Russia liberating yet another ‘Russian’ territory from ‘Nazis’ no doubt convinces many Russians, but on Russian-language social media, Ukrainians brought up a contrasting Russian memory: the invasion of ‘Hitler. “It reminds us all of 1941,” Zelensky said after the bombing of Kiev. His adviser Oleksiy Arestovich compared Kharkiv to Stalingrad.
Putin’s army inadvertently rubs shoulders with the parallels, bombing the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial and reigniting the Wehrmacht’s destruction of Kharkiv. A Russian eminently qualified to channel national memories of war, Siege of Leningrad survivor Elena Osipova, 77, protested Putin’s invasionwas arrested and, after her release, protested again.
Perhaps the country watching the most obsessed with World War II is Germany. German softness towards Putin’s Russia was partly motivated by the fact that they never wanted to be the bad guys again. But just as Putin seemed to become the villain of 1941, Germany turned around: with Russian gas, with defense spending and arms to Ukraine.
For now, we’re reliving 1941. Other historical parallels will emerge, including perhaps 1917, when starving, war-weary Russians overthrew the Tsar.
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